Listening to audiobooks is more engaging than watching films – even if you don't realise it, study finds

It is still not clear why listening to a book has such a powerful effect

Mo Farah is just one of a range of celebrities making documentaries, drama and discussion podcasts for the site
Mo Farah is just one of a range of celebrities making documentaries, drama and discussion podcasts for the site

Audiobooks are more emotionally engaging than TV and film – even if you don't realise it, according to a landmark new study.

The new research from UCL suggests that having a book read to you causes physiological changes including an increased heart rate and heat spreading through your body.

During the experiment, scientists had 103 participants of various ages listen to a range of different books, and compared their responses to how they felt when they watched the same scene in a film or TV adaptation. The study included emotional scenes from Game of Thrones and the Girl on the Train, for instance, both from the original book and their hugely popular adaptations.

The researchers, led by UCL head of experimental psychology Joseph Devlin, found that there was very strong statistical evidence that the emotional and physiological response was stronger when listening to audiobooks than when watching visual storytelling mediums.

That response was the same across different stories, different ages and different demographics, the researchers report.

But the participants themselves did not even realise that their responses were so strong. Those in the experiment said that they had been more involved in the scenes they watched – but the evidence coming from their bodies told a different story.

Participants' heart rate was about two beats per minute faster when they were listening to the audiobooks. Their bodies were just under two degrees warmer and their skin was slightly more conductive than when they watched the visual adaptations.

It is still not clear why audiobooks manage to engage people so strongly. But the authors suggest it is because it involves the audience in a way that film and TV don't, encouraging them to take part in the imagining of the story.

The results are part of a yearlong study by UCL and Audible as what it claims is the first time the effect of the way a story is delivered has been measured scientifically. It has been published on a pre-print server under the title 'Measuring narrative engagement: The heart tells the story'.

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